“Problematic” films to be reframed by Turner Classic Movies

March 7, 2021 • 10:00 am

The good news is that although the Pecksniffs at Turner Classic Movies (TCM) have found 18 “problematic”—run when you see that word—movies made between 1920 and 1960, they’re not going to pull them. Rather, as the article from the LA Times below notes, they are going to “reframe them”. That means that they will tell you what parts of the movies are bad in advance. The bad news is that although some of these movies probably should come with a disclaimer, I think they’re overdoing it.

Click on the screenshot to read the article. If it’s paywalled, you can find the same information at other sites by Googling “TCM films”:

The contents:

Turner Classic Movies has decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to timeless but troublesome movies. The result is “Reframed: Classic Films in the Rearview Mirror,” a new series that kicks off Thursday and runs throughout the month.

Along with screening 18 classics, TCM hosts will discuss what the network calls the “troubling and problematic” aspects of the much-loved flicks, which were released in the 1920s through the 1960s. “The goal is never to censor, but simply provide rich historical context to each classic,” the network said in a statement.

Among the problems: racism, sexism, portrayals of LGBTQ issues and more.

“We’re not saying this is how you should feel about ‘Psycho’ or this is how you should feel about ‘Gone With the Wind.’ We’re just trying to model ways of having longer and deeper conversations and not just cutting it off to ‘I love this movie. I hate this movie.’ There’s so much space in between,” TCM host Jacqueline Stewart recently told the Associated Press.

Stewart and fellow hosts Ben Mankiewicz, Dave Karger, Alicia Malone and Eddie Muller will take turns participating in roundtable introductions that touch on the history and cultural context of the films. They will also prep new viewers about moments they might find upsetting.

“Our job is not to get up and say, ‘Here’s a movie that you should feel guilty about for liking,’” Mankiewicz told the Hollywood Reporter. “But to pretend that the racism in it is not painful and acute? No. I do not want to shy away from that. This was inevitable. And welcomed. And overdue.”

Below are all the movies that will be “Reframed” once a week through the end of this month, beginning each Thursday at 5 p.m. Pacific. This is one situation where it’s good to be a night owl or own a DVR, because the films run one after the other — and even overnight. [see below]

Here’s the video discussing the “problematic” content of the TCM films. Again, the video is quite good at defending the need to show these movies, and why (and it’s not just because we need to come to terms with the moral degradation of the past). I’ll put the list of the movies below, but you can get an idea of many of them from this 6-minute video: “Gone with the Wind,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”, “The Jazz Singer”, “Stagecoach”, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. Curiously, three of the movies I recognize, “Rebel Without a Cause”, “No Way Out”, and “Lolita”, aren’t being shown by TCM, or at least aren’t on the list, but do appear in the video, implying that they need to be “reframed”. Perhaps that’s coming when they’re shown in the future.

Well, you know, I don’t have huge objections to this “framing”, but it still irks me a bit, and I’m not sure why. I recognize that there should be guidelines or content warnings, like “Note: racism, blackface, men hitting women, Native American being aggressive,” and so on. But beyond that, do we really need someone to tell us, and in detail, exactly why the movies are problematic? Why not put the discussions online so people can read them if they want to? Will there be any dissent among the discussants? I doubt it: they must convey a unified moral message.

I guess it seems a bit patronizing to me to have other people tell me why the movies are considered offensive.  The racism in the Sidney Poitier movie shown in the video above (“No Way Out,” curiously absent from the list given) is clearly meant to be an offensive display of bigotry, and do we really need to say, “When that guy spits in Poitier’s face, it’s racist”? The movie was intended to show racism in a negative light. That’s different from the “acceptable” racism in movies like “The Jazz Singer”.

Here’s the list of problematic movies; groups of them will be shown on a given night.  If you’ve seen some of these movies, you might want to guess what is “problematic” about them. I’ve put asterisks next to the ones I’ve guessed, and question marks next to ones that I’ve seen but can’t guess what’s problematic about them (granted, I haven’t seen some of these in years, and, given what I know about the Zeitgeist, I’m sure I could spot the bad bits upon rewatching).

March 4

  • “Gone With the Wind” *
  • “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” ?
  • “Rope”
  • “The Four Feathers”

March 11

  • “Woman of the Year” ?
  • “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” *
  • “Gunga Din” *
  • “Sinbad, the Sailor”
  • “The Jazz Singer” *

March 18

  • “The Searchers”
  • “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” [I read what is problematic; otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to guess]
  • “Swing Time”
  • “Stagecoach” [Ditto for Breakfast at Tiffay’s]
  • “Tarzan, the Ape Man” ?

March 25

  • “My Fair Lady” ?
  • “The Children’s Hour”
  • “Psycho” ?
  • “Dragon Seed”

And a note about other problematic films and television shows Entertainment:

Other networks and streamers are also finding ways to address these issues within their respective libraries. In June, HBO Max pulled Gone with the Wind in response to criticism from 12 Years a Slave director John Ridley who said the multiple Academy Award-winning film “glorifies the antebellum south.” It was re-released that same month with a new introduction.

The recent debut of The Muppet Show on Disney+ also arrived with warnings on nearly two dozen episodes due to “negative depictions.”

TV shows are receiving the same treatment, multiple episodes of popular shows like The Golden GirlsThe Office, and30 Rockwere either edited or pulled completely.

Does anyone have any objections to what Turner is doing? Do you think the films need “framing” via a seemingly extensive discussion? If not, is there a better way to single out what’s “problematic”?

NBC’s invidious portrayal of Orthodox Jews

February 28, 2021 • 12:45 pm

I’m not going to get bent out of shape about this incident, or call for heads to roll at NBC, but I can say that if this kind of stereotyping—and erroneous stereotyping—occurred with Muslims, blacks, or Hispanics, fulsome apologies would be tendered and heads would roll. It’s apparently okay for Jews, though.

I’m not going to defend the silly religious beliefs of the Orthodox, or their extreme form of Haredi Judaism, for those tenets are just as mythological and unfounded as the beliefs of any other faith. But you’d think that the writers of television shows depicting religions would at least get the beliefs right. In this case it’s a Hasidic Jew and his father (Hasids are a subset of Haredi Jews).

The clip is from the NBC show Nurses, which I haven’t seen, and it involves an Orthodox boy whose leg has been hurt and who needs a bone graft to fully heal. If you’re a Hasid, as Allison Josephs is in her article below (from an Orthodox site called “Jew in the City”), you’ll cast a kitten:

Okay, what’s the problem? Allison explains it in the video and the article below that. I’ll show an excerpt (there are multiple gaffes):

But if you weren’t offended yet, buckle up, because then the show really gets nasty. Israel is told by the doctor that he’ll need a bone graft to fully heal. Israel doesn’t understand what this means, so the doctor explains that he’ll have to have part of a dead person’s bone surgically inserted into his leg.

Cue the horror! Israel and his father are distraught at the notion that he’ll have a dead person’s body part in his body and that it will be a “goyim”[Sic] part to boot! But even worse than that – it could be an “Arab” body part or an “lady” body part. Or as the nurse reminds them, “an Arab lady” body part. (See this disturbing clip in my video explanation below.)

Despite my invitation to Hollywood producers to consult us when they do their “token Hasidic Jew” episode, Hollywood insists on remaining ignorant and promoting lies about the Orthodox community. Let’s unpack how badly they did with this aforementioned scene:

  1. There is no prohibition on getting a dead body part surgically inserted into one’s body. In fact, Jewish law says we should use the best medicine of our times to recover from our illnesses.
  2. There is no prohibition to get a non-Jewish body part inserted, nor is there a prohibition if the part belongs to a woman or an Arab.

Now, are there Orthodox Jews who look down on non-Jews and Arabs? You betcha. And are there Orthodox Jews who are misogynists? Unfortunately, yes for that one too. But the idea that such a surgery would be problematic in general or problematic because of where the bone came from not only is categorically false according to Jewish law, it is a vicious lie that endangers men who walk around with curled side locks and black hats.

Read the article below, because there are a lot of other gaffes in this very short clip and in the show as a whole. Don’t they even know that “goyim” is plural of “goy” and if you want an adjective for a gentile body part, it’s “goyische”.  All I can say is “Oy, gewalt!”


I wanted to see if NBC actually did apologize—I didn’t expect it—so I Googled “NBC apology for Nurses clip”. I found an article that says that NBC has actually withdrawn the episode, apparently the season finale, from its platform:

After facing backlash from the social media users and Jewish organizations, NBC pulled the season finale from its digital platforms, according to a report by Deadline.

The scrutiny over the resurfaced Nurses clip comes after NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL) also facing backlash for an anti-Semitic joke about Israel and coronavirus vaccines.

Guess which site that is? Breitbart! (No, I don’t read it; it came up on Google!). And nearly every other site that you get when you Google “NBC apology for Nurses clip” is conservative site like Fox News, Mediaite, or The Daily Mail. I tried the Washington Post, Huffpost (including their anti-Semitism section) and the New York Times specifically, and—no dice.

Is there a reason that the liberal media would ignore a distortion of Judaism this grotesque, but would feature it prominently if it involved the same finagling with African-Americans or Muslims? (“What, doctor: you want to put a PIG HEART VALVE in my son? No way!! Best leave him in the hands of Allah.”) Of course there is, and you know the answer.

Had I seen the show (I wouldn’t have) and had I known the grotesque distortions of belief involved (I didn’t), I would have kvetched a bit here, but my activism about mocking or distorting religion stops there. I’ll just point out the potential hypocrisy involved in this fracas being something that the right-wing but not left-wing media would highlight. It reminds me of an old joke, one that you won’t have heard:

A guy walks into a bar and notices a man talking to the bartender down at the other end. The guy does a doubletake because the man talking to the bartender really resembles Hitler.

So the guy goes up to the man and says “Excuse me, but did anybody ever tell you that you look like Hitler?”

The man says “Oh, but I am  Hitler. I have been reincarnated and I am back on Earth to kill 10 million Jews and 33 geese!”

“Oh, my God! That’s terrible! But why 33 geese?”

Hitler then turns to the bartender and says “See? I told you that nobody cares about the Jews.”

Oh, and let me note this at the end. Though some Haredi sects are opposed to organ donation after death, the Haredim are known for their willingness to be live donors, giving kidneys to other people, and not just other Jews. In fact, it’s more of a mitzvah if you don’t know who the recipient is. In Israel, the Haredim donate to everyone, including Israeli Arabs.  For verification, see Wikipedia, which has a reference to the U.S. data:

Haredi Jews have a high rate of live organ donations. In 2014, 17% of all live kidney donations to strangers in the United States were donated by Haredi Jews, even though they are only 0.2% of the US population.[8] Other studies of other live organ donations in the US and Israel show similarly high donation rates for a variety of organs.[citation needed]

“The Duckling Professor”

May 12, 2020 • 11:15 am

On Sunday, the local ABC News ran a story about the pond, the ducks, and yours truly. You can see the 3.5-minute video (and a transcript) of the piece below, shot and reported by ABC correspondent Zach Ben-Amots.

It’s a nice piece, I think, but I always cringe when I see myself. And it’s worse this time because I’m all shaggy from a lack of a haircut. And, in the second bit, I admitted to being stressed out (I was!), even though I greatly enjoy tending the waterfowl. This was right after we had another duckling death and the hens were fighting. So I’m not going to watch it again.

Oh well, I submit it for your approval. Just ignore the (lack of a) haircut.


Sean Carroll on the shows “Westworld” and “Devs”: free will, simulations, and multiverses

May 10, 2020 • 9:45 am

In the May 4 New York Times, culture reporter Reggie Ugwu interviewed Sean Carroll about the recent television series “Westworld” (HBO) and “Devs” (FX on Hulu). Sean watched both shows and gives his reactions, then discusses the premises of the shows.  Since I’ve seen only two episodes of one show (“Westworld”), and none of the other, I’ll let you read Sean’s take. Instead I’ll concentrate on one of the big topics of the interview as well as a pet interest of mine: free will.

Sean is a “compatibilist”: someone who, while admitting that our behaviors are determined in the sense that that laws of physics “fix the facts”, as Alex Rosenberg claims, including the facts of our behaviors, still avers that we can sensibly speak of “making a choice”. That is, while we could not have “chosen” other than what we did, we can still talk about “making a choice” and even pretend to ourselves that we really did make a “libertarian” choice where, at a given point, we could have made several alternative decisions.

I have no objection to saying that we have “free will” in the sense that we behave as if we did, though what rankles me are two things. First, philosophers dealing with the issue tend to concentrate on the “we really have a free will” part and downplay the determinism part, which to my mind is the part that has real ramifications for human behavior. Second, I think they do this (Dan Dennett has said so explicitly) because they think that if people realize that they don’t have a “free” choice and could not have made other choices, society will fall apart, with all of us, feeling like automatons or puppets, becoming nihilists unable to rise from our beds. That, of course, is false. I’m a “hard determinist” and get out of bed every day, and I realize that my “agency” is illusory even though I feel that it’s real. And if you’re a philosopher who argues for compatibilism in this way, it is condescending, for it tries to buttress most peoples’ feelings that they have libertarian free will. It’s exactly like those cynical theologians who don’t really believe in God, but think that it’s good for people to do so, as it keeps them on the straight and narrow. It’s odd that Dan Dennett, who’s demolished the theological argument as “belief in belief”, does nearly the same thing with free will.

There are a few more issues that compatibilists like to bring up.

Nobody really accepts libertarian I-could-have-chosen-otherwise free will.  That may be true among non-theological philosophers, but not among the public, with 60-85% of people surveyed in four countries saying that we live in a universe that has libertarian free will. And ask a religionist, one who thinks that one has a free choice to accept Jesus, God, or Allah, if they are really determinists at bottom. With the exceptions of Calvinists and a few other sects, they’ll say “Hell, no!” (Well, they’d probably leave out the “hell.”)

Even if our behaviors are determined, it wouldn’t make a difference to society if we espouse some form of free will. This is palpably untrue. Although some philosophers as well as some readers here say, “there are no consequences of determinism”, I think that’s cant and, indeed, somewhat disingenuous. Our whole legal system has a retributivist bent that comes from punishing people because we think they could have made a better choice than they did. Likewise, poor people are often held responsible for their own circumstances (viz. Reagan’s “welfare queens”), so that people ultimately get what they deserve. This is called the “Just World” view of life.

And if you don’t believe that, look at the Sarkissian et al. study of those four countries: 60-75% of people surveyed thought that if they lived in a deterministic universe and could not have chosen other than they did, then people would not be morally responsible for their actions. This, I believe, is the reason why some philosophers like Dan Dennett, though avowing otherwise (but contradicting himself in other places), espouse compatibilism: if you tell people they have free will, they consider themselves morally responsible for their actions. And, said Dennett, if they don’t, then society will fall apart.

My response to that is that we can have more justifiable and more ethically based systems of reward and punishment if we don’t accept that people could have done other than what they did. They can be held responsible for their actions, and rewarded or punished (the latter on the basis of deterring them, sequestering them from the public, or reforming them), but not morally responsible for their actionsFor “moral responsibility”, as with the people surveyed above, implies libertarian free will and can justify retributive punishment. (That said, I don’t object to the use of “moral” to characterize” what comports with human ethics”. But I dislike the term “morally responsible”, which smacks of free choice.

Compatibilists have not settled on a definition of “free will”. To one compatibilist, free will means freedom from obvious coercion. To another, it’s that we have complex processing in our brain that spits out a decision that’s gone through an involved (and evolved) program. To a third, it’s somebody who’s sane enough to understand the consequences of their actions. There are as many definitions of “free will” as there are compatibilist philosophers. So when you say “we have free will”, you better be damn sure that you add exactly what you mean, explain why your compatibilistic “free will” is not only different from others, but is better than others.

Enough. In his interview, Sean not only admits that he’s a determinist (and a compatibilist, which he lays out in his book The Big Picture), but comes surprisingly close to saying that determinism should affect our view of human behavior. I’ll quote a few of his answers (indented) and make a few comments:

First, Sean’s definition of determinism:

A common thread between the two shows is the conflict between free will vs. determinism. Can you explain what determinism is?

Determinism is basically the idea that if you knew everything that was happening in the universe at one moment, then you would know, in principle, everything that was going to happen in the future, and everything that did happen in the past, with perfect accuracy. Pierre-Simone Laplace pointed this out in the 1800s using a thought experiment called Laplace’s Demon.

Well, that’s his view of determinism, but I would rather use the world “naturalism”. For, if quantum mechanics be true, there are things that we couldn’t predict even if we had perfect knowledge of the Universe—like when a given radioactive atom will decay. And this means that even if we knew everything happening in the universe at one time, predictions might be inaccurate. I myself have argued that perhaps even evolution is unpredictable with perfect knowledge if mutation involves quantum processes. If that’s the case—and we don’t know—then the fuel for evolutionary change is unpredictable, and hence so is evolution.

Below is Sean’s compatibilism. Most readers here probably agree with it, and I don’t disagree unless one emphasizes the free will part and not the determinism part. All the following emphases in bold are mine, in which Sean makes it clear that we could not have done other than what we did.

Let’s talk about free will. Do we have it?

It’s complicated, and I apologize for that, but it’s worth getting right. The very first question we have to ask is: Are we human beings 100 percent governed by the laws of physics? Or do we, as conscious creatures, have some wiggle room that allows us to act in ways that are outside of the laws of physics? Almost all scientists will tell you that of course it’s the former. If you jump out of a window, the laws of physics say that you are going to hit the ground. You can use all of the free will you want, but it’s not going to stop you from hitting the ground. So why would you think that it works any differently when you go to decide what shirt you’re going to wear in the morning? It’s the same laws of physics. It’s just that one case is a more crude prediction and the other case is a more detailed prediction.

Good, Dr. Carroll! We obey the laws of physics when we “choose” a shirt to wear.

Did I make the choice to pick up the phone and call you?

Short answer: yes. Long answer: It depends on what you mean by “you” and “make the choice.” At one level, you’re a collection of atoms obeying the laws of physics. No choices are involved there. But at another level, you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices. The two levels are compatible, but speak very different languages. This is the “compatibilist” stance toward free will, which is held by a healthy majority of professional philosophers.

I think this is a bit confusing given that most people think that the words “you are a person who pretty obviously makes choices” means “FREE” choices. Now Sean takes care to make the distinction between determinism and the illusion of free choice, but I couch the distinction in a way very different from Sean, emphasizing the determinism. The rest is semantics, often (not with Sean!) constructed to fool people into behaving morally.

Here Ugwu asks a good question, and Sean answers with the traditional form of compatibilism.

But isn’t that a rhetorical sleight of hand? If our choices are fully predetermined by physical processes outside of our control and beneath our consciousness, are they really choices? Or is that just a story we’re telling ourselves?

I think it’s the same as the chair you’re sitting on. Is it an illusion because it’s really just a bunch of atoms? Or is it really a chair? It’s both. You can talk about it as a set of atoms, but there’s nothing wrong with talking about it as a chair. In fact, you would be dopey to not talk about it as a chair, to insist that the only way to talk about it was as a set of atoms. That’s how nature is. It can be described using multiple different vocabularies at multiple different levels of precision.

At the level of precision where we’re talking about human beings and tables and chairs, you just can’t talk that way without talking about people making choices. There’s just no way to do it. You can hypothesize, “What if I had infinite powers and I knew where all the atoms were and I knew all the laws of physics.” Fine. But that’s not reality. If you’re reality based, then you have to talk about choices.

In his response below, Sean comes about as close as he ever has to saying that there are tangible social effects of accepting determinism (again, the emphasis in the third paragraph is mine).

On both shows, the laws of physics are used to reframe the idea of morality. On “Devs,” Forest makes the argument that determinism is “absolution.” And there’s an idea in “Westworld” that humans are just “passengers”; forces beyond our control are behind the wheel. When you see people on the news, or even when you think about the people in your own life, does your belief in determinism affect the way you judge their behavior?

Not really, no. As long as you’re talking about a human-scale world. This idea that we are just puppets is clearly a mistake. It’s mixing up two different ways of talking about the world. There’s a way of talking about human beings going through their lives and making choices. There’s another way of talking about the laws of physics being deterministic and so forth. Those are two different ways — pick one.

[Carroll] Now, there are situations where we might learn that the choices that we thought people had are more circumscribed than we knew, either because of their biology or because of mental health issues, or what have you. By all means, take that into consideration. But that’s very human-scale stuff. If a person could not have acted otherwise, then you don’t hold them responsible in the same way. It’s not a matter of cutting edge science, it’s ancient law.

Well, ancient law isn’t that clear cut! For law, ancient and modern, is largely based on the premise that in some cases people could have acted otherwise. But they couldn’t—not ever! So we shouldn’t hold people responsible as if they could have acted otherwise. And that has enormous ramifications for the legal system. We already have “not guilty by reason of insanity”, but we should have “guilty of doing an act, but punished in light of the knowledge that they couldn’t have acted other than what they did.”  I’ve always thought that the court should determine responsibility, but another agency should determine “punishment”, and in light of determinism.

I wish that Sean would discuss the ramification of that “human-scale stuff”, because that’s what’s important to society. Sean clearly implies that the law under determinism would be different from the law under libertarianism (or perhaps even compatibilism). And in that he does differ from people like Dennett and many of the readers here. I’d love to have a discussion about all this with Sean some day.

“After Life”: a (fairly) new television show

May 2, 2020 • 12:15 pm

Now this is a show after my own heart: it stars a depressed atheist and also features the lovely Philomena Cunk (aka Diane Morgan), long a heartthrob of mine. Created, produced and directed by Ricky Gervais, it’s called After Life, and has finished its second season. Its premise, given on its Wikipedia page, is this:

After Life follows Tony, whose life is turned upside down after his wife dies from breast cancer. He contemplates suicide, but instead decides to live long enough to punish the world for his wife’s death by saying and doing whatever he wants. Although he thinks of this as his “superpower”, his plan is undermined when everyone around him tries to make him a better person. It is set in the fictional town of Tambury, where Tony works as a journalist at the local free newspaper, The Tambury Gazette.

Reader Karl sent me three links to YouTube summaries, and this first one, featuring Tony (Ricky Gervais) mostly bantering with Kath (Morgan), who works on the newspaper, got me intrigued.

And then I watched the recaps of the two seasons (below), and thought, “This is one television show I’d really like to see.” It’s not really a comedy, and not really a drama, but apparently a slice of life that could well have been real. And it seems to deal with real human emotions, often dark ones.

I wonder if there will be a season 3. (Since I don’t get cable or belong to Netflix, I can’t watch this, but maybe I should.) I presume at least a few readers have followed this show, so please give your takes below.



Part 2 of Ken Burn’s “The Gene” broadcast tonight

April 14, 2020 • 2:30 pm

The tweet below came from Matthew, who may in fact be featured in this documentary. This tells us that Part 2 (the last part) of Ken Burns’s documentary “The Gene: An Intimate History” will be broadcast on PBS tonight. And it will probably be available for free on the show’s website for at least a short while. The broadcast is at 8 p.m. Eastern time, 7 p.m. Central; for other times, consult your local PBS station.

This part is called “Revolution in the Treatment of Disease,” and so will be more medically than historically oriented.  The summary is indented:

Part Two begins with the story of the signature scientific achievement of our time: the mapping of the human genome. As scientists learn to read the genetic code, they grapple with the dangers inherent in increasingly sophisticated and easily available methods of intervening in the very essence of what makes us human, our DNA.

Well, one could quibble that our DNA is “the very essence of what makes us human.” I’d say that the morphology, physiology, and behavior coded for by our DNA is what makes us human. But arguments about “the essence of what makes us human” are always futile.

Part 1 is still free online (here), and it was pretty good.  Part 2 will certainly be worth watching, especially if you’d like to know what genetics can do for human welfare (and not through stuff like creating transgenic animals or plants).

A new Ken Burns series on genes and genetics

April 8, 2020 • 9:30 am

Both Matthew and reader Leon alerted me this morning to a new two-part series (four hours total) by Ken Burns, based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Gene: An Intimate History. You can watch the first episode (aired on PBS last night) by clicking on the screenshot below. I just learned about it, and haven’t yet watched it, but Matthew—who’s featured in it seven times—has, and has provided a brief précis below the screenshot. I’d recommend watching this at any time, but certainly now that most of us are housebound, searching for videos and other stay-at-home activities, it’s a good substitute for more mindless stuff.

The first episode is called “Dawn of the Modern Age of Genetics”, and has this summary:

Part One interweaves the present-day story of the Rosens, a young family on an odyssey to find a cure for their four-year-old daughter’s rare genetic disease, with stories of the exciting discoveries of the early pioneers in genetics. This episode also tracks the dark period in human history when a little genetic knowledge was used to justify terrifying human experiments.

And here’s Matthew’s take:

The first episode of this Ken Burns documentary The Gene: An Intimate History just aired on PBS in the US. It’s in two parts, each nearly two hours long. It’s based on Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book of the same name, and like the book, it mixes history and basic science with personal stories relating to human genetics, in this case looking at rare genetic diseases, and in particular Huntington’s Disease, a lethal and very unpleasant neuro-degenerative disease that hits people in their late 30s. The talking heads threading the various bits together include Mukherjee himself, Eric Lander and three friends of Jerry with whos readers of this site will probably be familiar: myself, Andrew Berry of Harvard and Steve Jones from UCL.

One of the most powerful sections—and certainly, if the Twitter response to the programme is anything to go by, the most surprising, for many viewers—is the part commented on by Andrew, which shows the links between the powerful US eugenics movement and Nazi Germany. My comments relate to various key historical moments in the story—this was recorded roughly 18 months ago. While I would take issue with the way some bits of the history are framed (to take just two examples, the significance of Photo 51 in the discovery of the double helix structure is, yet again, really over-played, thereby missing the key moment; and while there is a severe anachronism in the persistent use of the term ‘information’ prior to 1953, including the suggestion that Schrödinger used the term in his 1944 book What Is Life? [he didn’t mention it]), in general this is a very solid summary for the general viewer.

There is some really nice archival/reconstruction footage (especially of all those hairy scientists at the Asilomar Conference on recombinant DNA in 1974), and there is a very powerful thread which follows a British woman whose family has Huntington’s Disease, and who decides, in her late 20s, to take the test to see if she has the disease. Her motivation is both to find out the truth and, in the case of bad news, to be able to participate in the development of treatments.

Highly recommended! But be quick, it won’t stay up long. Non-US readers will need to use a VPN to convince the PBS servers that they are in the USA. . .

The New York Times touts Gwyneth Paltrow and “her other ways of knowing”

February 4, 2020 • 9:30 am

I’m not sure if the New York Times‘s penchant for woo has always been the case, or whether it’s new—and, additionally, whether it has something to do with the paper’s increasingly woke slant. (As we know, wokeness prizes ideology and narrative over truth.) Both Greg and I, for instance, have written about the paper’s recent and repeated approbation for astrology (see here, here, and here), and now there’s an op-ed that touts not only Gwyneth Paltrow’s new “Goop Lab” show on Netflix, but also engages in some science-dissing and promotion of “other ways of knowing.” (Click on the screenshot below.)

To be sure, this isn’t the paper’s official stand, but it’s a very strange and dire piece of “journalism” by two women. The bios of the authors, as given in the article, are not propitious:

Elisa Albert is a writer working on a new novel and a “wellness” polemic. Jennifer Block is the author of “Everything Below the Waist: Why Health Care Needs a Feminist Revolution.”

Wellness polemic? True women have often been treated thoughtlessly or badly by the medical establishment, and there’s nothing wrong with women helping other women realize their sexuality. But does Gwynnie really have to stand in front of a giant flowered vagina?

But I digress. I’ve read quite a few reviews of the show, and some of them mention that there are good bits, like the emphasis on healthy female sexuality and how to acquire a working knowledge of your nether parts and how to achieve orgasm. But nearly all of them decry the show’s emphasis on untested “cures”. While one person on social media told me to chill about Paltrow, as her kind of stuff isn’t harmful, it certainly is: it can make people waste money on stuff that isn’t useful, and even get sicker if they could have resorted to science-based medicine instead of woo. And what isn’t harmful about taking money under false pretenses. Even if the rich can afford jade vagina eggs, it fosters a climate of credulity as well as cynicism.

For a summary of the criticisms of Goop Lab, just go to the section “Series Reception” on the Goop Lab Wikipedia page. These are media reviews of the entire six-episode series, and they’re not pretty. In fact, not one of them is generally positive. (Gwynnie, of course, won’t care: she’s crying all the way to the bank.) For one example, here’s the New Yorker‘s new review of the series; the words “magical thinking” and “pseudoscience” often appear in these reviews (click on screenshot for free access):

(If you want to know what “sponcon” means, it’s not a French word but slang: go here.)

A brief excerpt:

Like other celebrity vanity projects—Beyoncé’s “Life Is But a Dream” comes to mind—“The Goop Lab” is a documentary in name only. Executive-produced by Paltrow, it is propaganda for the Goop company and for its ideas of magical thinking.

. . .“The Goop Lab,” lowbrow TV with high production values, is the most unsettling kind of sponcon—the soulful kind. Wim Hof, a popular healer who, following the death of his wife, came to believe in the salutary benefits of breathing exercises and immersion in freezing water, teaches a group of Goopers “snowga.” A bodywork expert asks several employees to lie down on massage tables, and then, like a puppeteer, pulls at the air above them as they writhe, moan, and weep. In every episode, the skeptics are converted, and the believers are reaffirmed.

If “intuiting” and “energy fields” are not your bag, you were never going to be swayed by “The Goop Lab”—although I confess that, after watching, I did take one, brief, ice-cold shower. True believers in alternative therapies might be put off by the show’s efficient portrayals of “healing”—breathing exercises on the grass, for instance, that lead to instantaneous catharsis. The show’s queasiest, most Oprah-y moments involve the testimonies of regular people, meaning people who would likely never read or buy anything from Goop. They are filmed, styled and dressed like Goopers, sitting alone, on designer chairs, with the white lab in the background. An Iraq War veteran who for years suffered from P.T.S.D. reports that MDMA therapy eliminated his suicidal ideation. A man diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome claims that the cold-water therapy restored his full range of movement; he can now do a split.

I have to add that I haven’t watched it, but I know a bit about the show from reading many reviews, and I’m familiar with Paltrow’s incessant hawking of woo, which has made her a very rich woman.

It doesn’t help that what’s seen as America’s best newspaper has published what looks like an endorsement of the Goop Lab philosophy and a critique of mainstream medicine, all of which boils down to “don’t trust Western medicine; it’s sometimes been wrong.” The authors repeatedly diss science and scientific medicine, imputing it in in fact to the Patriarchy. Indeed, they see the Goop Lab as empowered women taking back their right to practice “other ways of knowing.” Some excerpts from the NYT travesty:

So what underlies all the overwhelming, predictable, repetitive critiques? What exactly is so awful about a bunch of consenting adults seeking self-knowledge, vitality and emotional freedom?

The authors might consider that the repetitiveness of the critiques, as well as their pervasiveness and “predictability”, might say something about the kind of therapy pushed by Paltrow and her minions. But no, what it says to Albert and Block is that THE PATRIARCHY has repressed women’s “other ways of knowing”—ways handed down by oral tradition and never tested scientifically. But that doesn’t matter, because, after all, there are other ways of knowing!

My emphasis here:

Throughout history, women in particular have been mocked, reviled, and murdered for maintaining knowledge and practices that frightened, confused and confounded “the authorities.” (Namely the church, and later, medicine.) Criticism of Goop is founded, at least in part, upon deeply ingrained reserves of fear, loathing, and ignorance about things we cannot see, touch, authenticate, prove, own or quantify. It is emblematic of a cultural insistence that we quash intuitive measures and “other” ways of knowing — the sort handed down via oral tradition, which, for most women throughout history, was the only way of knowing. In other words, it’s classic patriarchal devaluation.

When 19th-century medicine men were organizing and legitimizing their brand-new profession, they claimed the mantle of “science” even though there was no such thing as evidence-based medicine at the time. In order to dominate the market, they slandered all other modalities as “quackery,” including midwifery, which we know achieved safer birth outcomes back then, as it still does today. Pejoratives like “woo” or “pseudoscience” are still often applied to anything that falls outside of the mainstream medical establishment. (Think about this the next time you hear something harmless or odd or common-sensical dismissed as an “old wives’ tale.”)

Yes, of course science has been misused as an excuse to sell snake oil, and midwifery, so far as I know, did draw on women’s experience to improve safety during birth. But what happened in the Bad Old Days of the 1800s is irrelevant to what happens when someone seeks modern scientific treatment. And the authors fail to mention that a lot of the criticism of Goop and its woo comes not from men, but from women (check out the list of critics in the Wikipedia article). Dr. Jen Gunther comes to mind, and the New Yorker piece above was written by Doreen St. Felix, a black woman. I guess all these folks are “sister punishers” who bought into the Patriarchy!

What bothers me most about this article is its explicit dissing of science in favor of intuition and experience. Here’s one example from Albert and Block’s piece:

Our society likes to conjoin the concepts of science and health, but the two do not always overlap. Peer-reviewed, lab-generated, randomized, controlled, double-blinded evidence will always be the gold standard, but such studies aren’t always fundable, or ethical. We kiss our children’s boo-boos even though there’s no gold standard evidence that it will make them feel better. We just know that it does. Which in turn makes us feel better. That’s “wellness.”

This is prime “whataboutery”. Because there are unethical or unempathic physicians, that somehow vindicates the empathic, unethical, and useless woo peddled by Paltrow.

And as for reiki, check out the link they give for the efficacy of this “energy-based healing”, a method assuming the existence of “energy channels” in the body that don’t seem to exist. (Much of the therapy involves not even touching the patient, but waving hands over the body. The one meta-analysis above suggesting that it has benefits over placebo can be countered by any number of analyses that show that the method is no better than placebos (see discussions here, here, here and here).

A major objection to reiki is that it is a metaphysical treatment, based on assumptions about the body that simply aren’t true. If it makes you feel better, then fine: the only harm done is to your pocketbook, but note that other “integrative” therapies, like acupuncture, have not been demonstrated to be effective on their own–or even better than placebos. (By writing this, I’m guaranteed to get a ton of email from pseudoscience advocates.)

As for Paltrow’s “yoni egg”, much decried by Dr. Jen Gunther, the authors note that well, there aren’t any cases showing that it’s harmful, and real medical devices like transvaginal pelvic mesh have harmed patients. True! But that is just more whataboutery, and can’t justify quackery like yoni eggs. Just because science and scientific medicine can make mistakes, that doesn’t justify pseudoscientific nostrums where we have a prior evidence, like for jade vagina eggs, that they can be harmful, and no evidence that they can be helpful.

In the end, the authors decry Western medicine, implicitly touting the Goop Lab approach, because it gives women “agency over their own bodies”, enabling them to connect with those Other Ways of Knowing:

To be clear, we aren’t looking to Goop for scientific rigor (or political consciousness, for that matter). But it’s condescending to suggest that if we are interested in having agency over our bodies, if we are open to experiencing heightened states of awareness and emotion, if we are amazed by and eager to learn more about the possibilities of touch and intention and energy, and if we’d like to do everything within our power to stay out of doctors’ offices, we are somehow privileged morons who deserve an intellectual (read: patriarchal) beat-down. Openness to intuitive measures that might help us avoid or ameliorate chronic despair and disease does not make us flat-earthers.

First, a scientific beatdown, which is what Paltrow deserves and is getting, is not a patriarchical beat-down, as evidenced by women like Jen Gunther who regularly take apart the kind of nonsense purveyed by Goop Lab. What we see on the part of Albert and Block  is an almost Trumpian assertion that Paltrow is good because the elite are going after her. It’s medical populism, and, like Trumpism, asserts that the claims of empirical medicine are “false facts”. They even call science a virtue signal!

The word “science” has morphed into a virtue signal, but science is simply a tool, and it can be used for both good and ill. “Science” was used during the first half of the 20th century to stop women from breastfeeding, encouraging them to turn to highly profitable, shelf-stable formula and jars of baby food instead.

No, science is not a virtue signal: it is a method of finding out the truth about the world. Yes, it’s a too, but it is the ONLY tool—the sole “way of knowing”—that can demonstrate whether a therapy works beyond its placebo effects. Saying that science has done bad stuff, and therefore shouldn’t be fully trusted, is like saying that chemistry brought us Zyklon B, and therefore can’t be trusted. (Nor can architecture, which, after all, was involved in building gas chambers).  It’s amazing that the New York Times would publish an article that extols pseudoscience. This is not opinion, after all, but a matter that can be adjuciated empirically. But they’ve done the same thing with astrology, which has failed scientific tests of its value.


Watch Bill Maher’s show while you can

September 21, 2019 • 9:00 am

This, sent by reader Michael, is a video of Bill Maher’s show last night, featuring Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Haider, as well as Samantha Power, Timothy Naftali and Heather McGhee Watch it while you can, because these things are taken down soon. I haven’t even watched it in my rush to make it available here.

Haider is the special guest, and appears at 31:32.

I’ve now watched it. It’s a good show overall: there’s discussion of Justin Trudeau’s blackface, NZ prime minister Jacinda Arden’s unwise donning of a hijab after the Christchurch mosque massacre, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and much more.

Sarah Haider and Andrew Sullivan on Bill Maher’s show tonight

September 20, 2019 • 3:30 pm

From an email from the Ex-Muslims of North America:

And from Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine column today (which you should read):

See you tonight on Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO at 10 p.m. ET. And, of course, next Friday.

If I got HBO I’d surely watch this (though I don’t stay up that late!). But I will post any clips that appear on YouTube.